17 May 1536 – The tragic executions of five innocent men

On this day in history, 17th May 1536, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton and George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, were escorted from the Tower of London up to the scaffold on Tower Hill to be executed for high treason.

They had all been sentenced to a full traitor’s death, i.e. to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but the king, in his ‘mercy’, had commuted their sentences to death by beheading. It might not seem very merciful to us, but at least beheading was usually quick, compared to the lengthy pain and suffering of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

You can read more about their executions by clicking here but here is a video by Clare Cherry, co-author of George Boleyn: Tudor Poet, Courtier and Diplomat, about the five men.

“And thus farewell each one in hearty wise!
The axe is home, your heads be in the street;
The trickling tears doth fall so from my eyes
I scarce may write, my paper is so wet.
But what can hope when death hath played his part,
Though nature’s course will thus lament and moan?
Leave sobs therefore, and every Christian heart
Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone.”
(Sir Thomas Wyatt)

Also on this day in 1536, the marriage of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was annulled – click here to read more.

Picture: Tower Hill Scaffold Memorial, photo by Tim Ridgway.

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9 thoughts on “17 May 1536 – The tragic executions of five innocent men”
  1. This wasn’t an execution. This was a slaughter of five innocent men. It is four and half centuries on and it feels like it iust happened. These men weren’t so different from us today, they just lived in a different time. I laugh at Henry’s ‘mercy’. What kind of mercy so easily snuffs out innocent lives with no qualms or conscience. The so-callef trial was a farce and I imagine anyone with eyes and ears knew it. R.I.P and know that the accusations against you are not sticking and That Henry has become a joke in the eyes of the world.

  2. Pray for the souls of those be dead and gone, I find Wyatts poem so beautifully written and so moving as he lamented on the deaths of those some who he had known as friends, he knew the woman he once had loved was imprisoned not far from him and was soon to meet her own tragic fate, some say she watched her brother die but was that possible from her private apartments?, The men were all escorted out out of their cells and died according to their rank, thus George was first, he made an eloquent speech worthy of the poet in him and died bravely, he confessed to nothing but said that he had been vain and bid others use him as an example, all the men confessed to nothing and they all died bravely, Smeaton to Annes horror did not retract his statement but asked simply that the crowd pray for him, the scaffold by now was awash with blood as he surrendered his neck to the headsman, he too died bravely, it was a pity Smeaton could not find it in him to retract his statement but he may have been too frightened as the threat of the other gruesome fate for traitors must have been in his mind, this has been the subject of debate ever since, why did he not clear the queens name? Did he fear that he would be hurriedly taken down from the scaffold and escorted back to his cell where he would be told he would be taken to Tyburn instead, for that would have been his fate, they were all beheaded instead of suffering the full horror of the traitors death, as the King in ‘his mercy’ commuted the sentance, was this Henrys conscience at work, did he knowing they were innocent felt they deserved a merciful death, we will never know but Henry was not known for showing mercy to many of his subjects, the northern rebels for one, the Carthusian monks why were these men different? Another thing interestingly is that these so called traitors did not have their heads displayed on pikes on Tower bridge, unlike Catherine Howard’s lovers the heads were simply buried along with the bodies, George in St. Peter Ad Vincula where his ill fated sister would soon join him, George who I feel was slandered more than the others for having the charge of incest against him is said to have written a sad little poem whilst he was awaiting death, it survives to this day and is attributed to him but some say it may have been written by his sister, ‘ Oh death rock me asleep’ it speaks of the utter fear of death and the longing to be at peace, one of the verses says ‘ I feel my torment so increase that life cannot remain’ it sums up perfectly the feelings of those wretched victims who knew their lives were coming to an end, as Sir Francis Weston himself said, ‘ I thought little it would come to this. RIP all those who suffered this day in May 17th 1536.

  3. Let us remember five innocent men killed on trumped up charges this day 482 years ago on Tower Hill. Sir Henry Norris, Sir William Brereton, Sir Francis Weston, George Boleyn, Lord Rochford and Master Mark Smeaton, RIP. May the Lord Grant Perpetual Light To Shine Upon Them. YNWA. Amen.

  4. Christine, what significance, if any, do you attach to the burying of the heads of the victims, instead of the usual gory display on Tower Bridge?

    1. Hi Globerose, I find it highly significant as like everything else about this strange affair it was like Henry was trying to get everything out of the way as soon as possible, and make it secret and hidden, done and dusted as we say today, from the minute these poor men like Anne were arrested things moved at a terrifying speed, both trials without any real evidence, all five men killed together, now their bodies hastily buried and their heads not on display, which would proclaim to the world their shame and guilt but hidden in the earth with the rest of their remains, another sign of guilt – maybe the act of a repentant King who had just carried out judicial murder? We do not know what Henry said to Kingston about the victims bodies but everything smacks of him trying to make this whole repugnant affair as furtive as could be, when it was Annes turn Cromwell had all foreigners banished from the Tower, as well he might, he did not want anyone causing reckless talk that maybe spoken of abroad, and whilst five innocent men went to their deaths and a queen sat in her lonely apartments, the man who was responsible was no doubt thinking of his next wedding day with his soon to be bride, tears and bloodshed the end of life for some, for two others sunshine and a happy future, death and life walked side by side.

  5. Thanks Christine and funnily enough, your phrase ‘done and dusted’ popped into my mind too! Another obvious thing about this execution must be the presence of Mark Smeaton as prisoner five … did no-one question his place in this noble line-up? Did no-one there think to themselves Now why has this lad been given this merciful death?

    1. I believe they must have, they must have said to one another what’s that traitor doing here with us, and I believe he must have suffered from the odd verbal assault from them, at least when they were being rowed to their trials in Westminster, but now the atmosphere must have been solemn and they were all trying to compose themselves, how do you feel when you know you are going to die, when the day you wake up will be your last, especially when these men knew they were innocent, quite possibly they had spent most the night in prayer, we know nothing of Smeatons life before he came to court and he was said to have been a fresh young country boy, others that he was Flemish, most storytellers paint him as a young impressionable boy gifted with a handsome face and a melodious voice, he had come to Henrys attention and the queen liked him and soon he became her favourite musician, she gave him little gifts and money, he is said to have become arrogant because of the queens preference for him and sauntered about showing off his fine clothes before her jealous courtiers, wether that was true is not important but it could have gone to his head a bit, but what is true is he was mercilessly picked out by Cromwell as a scapegoat for his evil plan and became the catalyst for bringing down the queen, poor young Mark and poor Weston Brereton Norris and Rochford.

  6. The words of Thomas Wyatt as he watched his friends die have always haunted me down the ages, his heart was totally broken as these bloody days passed over him. This must have been terribly traumatic for him and I really don’t think he was the same afterwards. He did blame Mark Smeaton for all that had happened and he can’t have felt very good about himself. Even Anne was shocked he hadn’t retracted his confession. However, I feel some degree of sympathy for him because he was terrified and he was controlled by that fear. According to the late Professor Ives the full sentence of hanging, drawing and quartering could be carried out if the condemned even at the last moment and he may have been afraid of that terrible sentence.

    The first to die was George Boleyn, the highest in rank of the five men and he is famous for his long and bold speech which, although it followed the expected patterns, also exhorted others to lead a life in the Gospel and to learn from his failure to do so at times. His references to forgiveness for his many sins has been misinterpreted to mean he was a sexual deviant and the verses by William Cavendish didn’t exactly help his reputation. However, it is more likely that as a Christian that he was talking about his sins in general and his hope of salvation and his sexuality had nothing to do with it.

    Next came Sir Henry Norris, who had been especially close to the King and was probably targeted deliberately by Thomas Cromwell out of distain as he looked down on him and saw him as functionary. Starkey and Ives both remarked that Norris in particular had a thing about Cromwell and resented the power and confidential position that he had. Many of the gentry felt the same, but Norris was close to the Boleyn factions and that made him a target also. He fell into an open trap when his conversation with Anne was reported to Henry and Cromwell and then Smeaton accused him of being her lover. To Cromwell it all fell into place and he didn’t care how close to the King this man was. Whether or not Henry instigated all of this I doubt he expected Norris to be on the radar, which is why he challenged him. Unfortunately for Norris the King was no longer listening and didn’t believe his protests of innocence. As he died, Henry Norris said nothing, almost accepting the King’s will, or was his silence another protest, against the futility of it all, because no matter what they had said, this whole thing had been rigged against them from the start?

    Francis Weston and then Brereton were executed next and both made brief but conventional speeches. Finally, Mark Smeaton, merely asked for prayer. It had to be hard to watch all of this slaughter of men from the inner circle of the King and Queen and even given the shocking nature of the many charges they had been found guilty of, the crowd must have wondered at how much of this was true. Multiple executions for treason were rare. That all this also involved the Queen made it all the more remarkable.

    We must remember all of these five men who can so easily be overlooked as the focus is often on Anne Boleyn. I agree with Christine, the fact that none of the men’s heads were put up on London Bridge is significant. I see it as a sign of Henry’s guilt, the cover up and keeping this hidden. It is as if they were not to be allowed to leave behind even a frightening example to others to do as they are told. They didn’t exist and could be forgotten.

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